The wilderness is a dynamic theatre, constantly unravelling its never-ending story, one Act at a time, to whoever cares to observe. As guides, guests and spectators, we are its audience. However, the wild waits for no spectator, and despite our best efforts, much of nature’s great plays and sequences pan out, not behind closed curtains, but in front of an empty room.
Quite recently we witnessed one of these events which not many people have seen (or even heard about), and it was one which I had never wished, or even expected, to see in my life. I can say with confidence that it was difficult to watch at the time and certainly is a memory I cannot erase. The details are grim and the result harsh, so for any sensitive readers or dog-lovers, this may not be the first-choice post for today’s reading.
Our safari started with an early afternoon spent with a huge breeding herd of Elephant. Our vehicle was full of excited guests who were pleased to see so many Elephants only a few minutes into the drive. My tracker, Rob, and I had decided to head towards the northern bank of the Sand River, where the Tsalala Pride of lions had already been found, and were since left fast asleep at the water’s edge in the heat of the day. On any other day, we would have stayed with that huge herd until much later in the afternoon, when the lions would hopefully start waking up. Spoilt for choice, I know. But this plan changed when we heard over the radio that rangers, Tom, Melvin and Simon, had found a pack of Wild Dogs who were a few kilometres away, and steadily moving north toward the Sand River. Rob and I weighed up the possibility of the pack continuing in that direction for that amount of distance, and discussed whether we thought they could end up on the river bank, opposite to the sleeping pride. This would be a sighting neither one of us had ever seen or heard about before, and we decided to go for it!
It took us a while to move around the vast herd of feeding Elephants, and we eventually reached the river bank where the pride had been left, not knowing how our ambitious bet on the pack’s movement had turned out. Admittedly, I expected to find seven sleeping cats, to sit and wait for a pack of dogs to show up (only to find out that they had changed direction a few minutes before and ended up miles away- not an unlikelihood for the ever trotting canines). To my surprise, there they were, the Wild Dogs, all emerging out of the thickets on the far side of the river, and lining up on the sand preparing to enter a shallow section of water, now between them and our vehicle. Perhaps it was for a drink, a swim or even to get across to our side. But, where were the lions? And, surely, once any one of the dogs had seen the pride, they would all run away before the sleepy lions even realised they were there? Surely.
While we admired the army of painted coats entering the river from a distance, sudden movement caught our eyes below. The Tsalala Pride were wide awake and fully alert. Evidently they had woken to the noise of the pack’s arrival and were now creeping towards the water, their bodies low, ears flat and eyes wide, while their pale coats blended them in to the pale sandy bank’s backdrop. Our almost ‘ariel view’ of these converging groups of predators was laid out in front of us. The stage was set and the scene was already in motion.
Before anybody could say anything in preparation, there was chaos.
Almost without a sound, as I remember it, there were suddenly seven lions, and at least ten wild dogs, sprinting in different directions through a foot of moving water. The explosion of muscle and mud was over in two or three seconds as the spray settled. Looking back, it felt like several minutes of panic and confusion within the shallow water, however, most of us can recall noticing one of the lions on a fixed route toward one of the fleeing dogs in particular, a slower pup of the pack struggling for adequate footing in the riverbed. There was no contest once the young Tsalala lioness closed the gap and made the tackle on that young dog. She outweighed the pup five times over. Everything then went still. No other dogs were visible, their exit routes were lightning fast, and in any, and all, directions. Left in the middle of the river lay a lioness and a fallen pup, while the rest of the pride began regrouping. The pup was not killed, though, and the other lionesses proceeded to take turns in inflicting their own damage to their victim. Eventually, the powerful Tailless female put the pup, and all of us, out of its misery. The rest of the pride carried on as if nothing had happened, as the cubs resumed their playful fighting in the cool water. Their casual state returned. Our vehicle was filled with shock and awe throughout, and it was probably only the adrenaline that kept everybody, including Rob and me, so calm.
I say we were lucky, as two days before this we had seen that very pack of Wild Dogs in the morning, and had watched them run, hunt and feed. We had seen those few pups of the pack interact with each other, battle for meat at the carcass and be protected by the adults while a scavenging Hyena arrived. But this only strengthened the connection we had with them. I say we were lucky, but our luck only made it harder to watch. After that initial sighting with the pack, we had spoken about the privilege we had been afforded to see them, as they are Africa’s second-most endangered carnivore- second only to the Ethiopian Wolf. We were privileged in that their nomadic lifestyle sees them moving around several hundred square kilometres, making any viewing of them something for us to cherish. Anybody who has been on safari, and been lucky enough to see these stunning hunters, would know that. In discussing their rarity, we had spoken about them being under threat from other large predators, specifically lions. And now, here we were, with such an example being brought to life right in front of us. While knowing all along that lions are a contributing factor to the low population of Wild Dog in Southern Africa, it was suddenly very difficult to watch.
It was almost as if we all accepted this explanation for the pack’s endangered status until we had to see it in action. A sudden shock value given to known facts. And, without a doubt, that’s what it was- shocking to watch, brutal to listen to and saddening to experience the untimely death of an up-and-coming predator during a crucial time in its development. A bubbly little character in a huge family of care-givers was now a crack in the pack’s succession. I don’t think anybody could explain their own emotion during the rest of that sighting, but we all shared in something special by being there.
What we had all realised was that we had been in the perfect place at the perfect time to witness something which is not easily achieved. We had observed nature in its purest form. Nothing more could be extracted from that event other than our observation of a harsh and wild interaction which would have happened with or without our presence. The stage was set and the story unfolded as it does, not caring who is in the audience to watch.
We could not be sad for the young wild dog nor its pack. We could not be happy for the lion pride, nor angry at its young and experienced lioness. We could only acknowledge the brutality of the predators’ rivalries and understand the ongoing nature of the wilderness as a whole; a theatre waiting for nobody. The show must go on. And if we are privileged enough to find a seat, then we should roll with the emotional punches and keep our eyes on the stage, its characters and the overall plot, and we just might catch an Act which will stay in our memories forever.
Written and Photographed by Sean Cresswell